Vital to organizing any White House is distilling people with loyalty, talent, mission-focus, and connectivity to problems that need real solutions. The Trump team has a tougher job than most. Objectively, they are leaning into tougher problems than the Nation has faced in decades, making top picks harder – and more important. From the economy to national security, immigration to foreign policy, they have their work cut out. Three suggestions may help, as they did after Reagan’s victory – and creating rolling Reagan victories.
First, do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but throw out as much bathwater as possible. Distinguish real experts in process and policy from habitual buyers and sellers of influence, true mission-leaders from want-to-be seat-warmers and title-chasers. Trump, like Reagan, will need those who know the system, who are distinguished by deep knowledge in critical areas, ready to break glass, shrink bureaucracy, defend limited government, end business as usual, and face withering criticism for doing so. Optimally, they will be good communicators, as Reagan and much of his team was.
The group must be inherently mission-focused, happy to sign the 5-year pledge not to register in the future as lobbyists. Whatever they bring, if mission counts, if commitment is real, the distance between “can,” “will” and “did it” should be short. By contrast, those distinguished by giving money to Congress and seeking a return on their contribution, who have filled seats but done little, who are not willing to defend the revolution in accountability, downsizing and mission-redirection, should get a pass.
Second, look for appointees willing to make hard decisions. Top nominees – Defense, State, and Attorney General – always come first. Others follow in time. But all nominees must be willing to make hard decisions. Ask them: Willing to give it your all, defend the mission and textual Constitution, while pressing management reform? How will you avoid being “captured?” How do you define “leadership?” Hint: Better include tough calls and weathering the fallout. How do you raise morale, while cutting bureaucracy? How do you plan to make your department, agency, bureau accountable?
Concretely, making bureaucracies accountable is tough. You make people angry, even as you inspire others to do right things. Example: Leaders in the Trump administration must seek tough Inspectors General (IG) for all departments, and empower them. IG’s should be invited to conduct top-to-bottom reviews of all operations, all offices, reconciling past appropriations, apportionments, obligations and liquidations – within days of transition. When I came to State and found discontinuities, questions no one could or would answer, investigations followed. Within a few weeks, I was able to de-obligate 60 million dollars – all money that came back to taxpayers. New appointees should seek audits for every department, again shortly after arriving.
Full time employees should be inspired, but warned. Realistically, they should be told that hard work is appreciated and rewarded, but dodgers ought to leave, retire or prepare for high scrutiny. Every dollar spent will be tracked, performance measures of effectiveness made real. If outcomes are achieved, good things will happen; if not, the program will be reviewed and if failing, canceled. Full stop.
Accountability for failure will become real, as it is in the private sector. Career-oriented rewards for success will also be real. The Merit Systems Protection Board will be reformed – no longer permitting endless employment for those removed for mis-, mal-, or non-performance. Bonuses, blithely given out by groups like the Internal Revenue Service, will be frozen; if resumed, only on merit.
Finally, if employees are unwilling to follow policies, implement existing laws, curtail regulations as directed, cooperate with Congress, or for any other reason feel compelled to sideline, delay, deflect, demur, ignore, or “bureaucratically roll” what the incoming President and Congress proscribe in law, they should consider leaving Federal Service. This is tough medicine, but the start of accountability.
From Defense and State to Justice, indeed across the Federal sweep, group think, diminished accountability, and politicization have become common, worrisome and unprecedented. New appointees must understand what they are up against in inertia and indifference, if not opposition to reforms – and must be willing to steer directly into those high winds, tacking hard.
Major contractors in every department, which typically outnumber full time employees, should be told several things: Late deliveries will be penalized in all contracts, starting now. Invoicing will go to meticulous detail, no more general billing. Taxpayers have had enough. Competition will be open, full, and invited. Decisions will be merit-based and fast. Emphasis will be on performance capability, not connectivity to mid-level bureaucrats, preferences without basis, or some political pressure.
Oversight will be intense, but methodically weighed against performance. Everything will be reported to Congress, no secrets. Consistent with congressional oversight, the Trump Administration should work with Congress to assure regular Government Accountability Office (GAO) deep dives on anomalous activities. If any nominee is not comfortable with managing such reforms, that says a lot.
Third, trust is worth its weight in gold – especially in Washington. By way of example, if the Trump transition is theoretically being led by ten seasoned, talented loyalists, each probably knows ten more seasoned, talented people to whom they can turn for trusted counsel. Those ten may again have ten. The bond that links the first ten to the last is trust. In the Reagan White House, unlike every White House since, there was an innate sense of higher mission, and it crystalized in a word – trust.
People shared the commitment to all-American ideals, few outliers. They did not always agree, and Reagan seemed content with this, but trusted each other, which freed them to seek something bigger together than their appointments, namely truth. That is the synergy Trump must seek, and it does not relate to political party. It relates to something in America’s historical record, something that defined every word spoken at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 – pursuit of truth, and the commitment to work on finding and executing it.
Reagan chose people for strength of character, not on party registration, loyal as he was. Thus his United Nations Ambassador, and a great one, was Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a registered Democrat. She was a “voice in the wilderness” on totalitarianism, until everyone understood. Ed Meese, lifetime friend of the President, was willing to suffer criticism for defending the U.S. Constitution, and did so regularly. Those two examples inspired trust, in and out of the Administration, by fidelity to principle.
More defines this moment of high honor and responsibility, and surely there is a torrent pouring through the mail-slot, but perhaps the best advice ever given, was the note Ronald Reagan left in that big desk for George Herbert Walker Bush – no joke. The note was short: “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” Good advice for another incoming President, and his team, at this moment in time.